“Are you still going out with your friend once a week?” Kelly asked me on a Friday morning in early November. Only moments earlier, I finished relating my most recent eating near-disaster… I mean practice in flexibility and opportunity for growth. The shift in the conversation seemed a bit abrupt.
“Once a week or every other week. Yeah. Just about,” I replied, rather flatly. I was unsure where Kelly might lead me next.
“Good,” she smiled and nodded. “That’s important. You need to keep doing that.”
I laughed. Actually, it was halfway between a laugh and a grimace. “Why?”
“You need that challenge. You need to continue putting yourself in those situations,” she responded, without hesitation.
Many thoughts rippled fluidly through my mind. What situations? Restaurant situations? Social situations? Exactly what kind of challenge is this routine of eating out regularly supposed to offer? I think this whole rhythm of dining with Brita two or three times a month is becoming mundane. I don’t really need to keep doing this anymore. I like spending time with Brita, but that doesn’t mean that we must dine out.
“Yeah, ok,” I told her.
For some reason, when I am with Kelly, her advice seems intuitive, and my fears seem unrealistic. The near-misses, almost-catastrophes, and horrible situations over which I come to her in various states of distress, worry, anxiety, hesitation, trepidation, and concern tend to morph into strange periods of struggle through which I must traverse in order to gain comfort with food, with myself, and with the complexities of life in this world. By life in this world, I mean a full life, an entirely engaged life, a life that is worthy of treasuring. I do not mean the narrow, hollow, shell-like, false façade of a “life” that I created for myself when I was imprisoned by my eating disorder. I tend to leave Kelly’s office with some bizarre mixture of curiosity, inspiration, disappointment, motivation, self-forgiveness, courage, and eagerness for the next opportunity to face down a similar challenge so that I can try out a slightly different approach to the problem. In fairness to myself, I am often well on my way through this process of reflection before we meet, but she always draws me further along. As my recovery progresses, I find that it takes less and less time or effort to wade through all the mental and emotional “middling stuff,” as I like to call it, on my way to the lesson/nugget/discovery of self-compassion at the end.
Yet, there are undulations to most parts of life, to borrow a word from one of my favorite authors, C.S. Lewis. Sometimes, I am more mindful and connected than at other periods. My moods and thoughts fluctuate; and the way I feel about and approach my recovery shifts.
Two weeks earlier…
Brita and I are at a popular, chef-owned, local restaurant. Part of its popularity and attraction is the emphasis that the chef/owner/operator places on using locally sourced, natural, and in many cases organic ingredients. Personally, I love small, local restaurants featuring menus that change with the seasons. As an orthorexic, I feel reassured with a somewhat better knowledge of what is going into my dish. However, this particular restaurant still remains a challenge for me, mainly because the cuisine is targeted toward the Midwestern palate. While I am making remarkable progress toward comfortably eating and enjoying an ever-broadening range of foods, cream sauces, chicken thighs, spaghetti, tacos, fried onions, and buttermilk mashed potatoes remain well-beyond my comfort zone. Simply the idea that I am braving this restaurant and will “Tim Gunn it” (i.e., “Make it work,”) is its own victory.
The standard menu is definitely a big challenge, but one of the seasonal options catches my eye. Swordfish with polenta. Seafood in general is a safe fallback for me, and I know polenta through a friend from Columbia who loves to cook. I place my order, and then I almost forget about the food as Brita and I lose ourselves in conversation. When the waitress returns and places a steaming plate before me, I am perplexed. There is my little piece of fish with its artful tomato and caper garnish, next to it is the steamed asparagus that I expected… but what is the mushy stuff? The polenta that my Columbian friend prepares comes out looking like round rice cakes.
I stare at the plate, baffled. What IS it? I wonder. Did they mix up my order? What DID I order? I honestly can’t remember what my starch is supposed to be.
Brita is not looking at her food. Rather, she’s staring at me. “What’s wrong,” she demands. I would love to know what my face looks like right now. Actually, I would settle for being able to identify my emotions. Confusion? Anxiety? Fear? I don’t think I’m panicking… not yet.
“I can’t remember what I ordered,” I confess, poking at the mush with my fork.
Her face expresses a mixture of mirth and concern. “It’s polenta,” she educates me.
Relaxation and relief instantly wash over me. I can feel the release as if it were a wave gently smoothing a sandy seashore. My muscles ease, my thoughts at once calm, my emotions are again as they were only moments before the food arrived, more interested in my company than in the plate positioned in front of me. “Oh, yeah! Oh, it’s ok. I just didn’t expect it to look like that.” I take a bite. It doesn’t taste like the crunchy cake baked by my Columbian friend, but it doesn’t taste bad. I can detect a hint of cheesiness, and I reason that it is probably mixed with something fatty or creamy and not-so-healthy for me. It’s still ok. It’s not a crisis. I will just eat a little bit of it. There is plenty of food here to fill me up.
And that is exactly what I do. The remainder of the meal is excellent, and Brita and I chat energetically until the last of the other diners are making their ways toward the exit and the waitress is looking on tiredly, ready to go home.
“SO!” exclaims Kelly during one of our Friday morning appointments a few days later. “How did it feel to eat GRITS?!” she almost explodes with laughter as she drops the word “grits” on me like a belly flop.
“I didn’t eat grits,” I correct her matter-of-factly. “It was polenta.”
She is grinning from ear to ear and leans in closer to me across her desk. “It’s boiled cornmeal. The only difference is where you live.”
I sit up more erectly in my chair. I hate grits. I am a born and bred New Englander. The only time I ever allowed grits to pass my lips was on a trip to Alabama when I was 16. I tried grits once, found the dish perfectly unappetizing, and promised myself never again. “It wasn’t grits!” I insisted. “It was POLENTA!”
Kelly is thoroughly relishing our debate. “It was grits, and it was made from CORN.” I also hate corn, a fact of which Kelly is well-aware. Kelly continues to press, “Why won’t you eat corn?”
I look past her right ear toward the spines of the books lined up neatly on her shelf, as I often do when I know that I am being irrational. “Because,” I declare, “it isn’t healthy!” I think of the malnourishment and obesity that I see in impoverished communities that subsist on too much corn and too little of everything else. (It’s ironic to think that malnourishment and obesity can co-exist, but they often do). Kelly argues that there are important nutrients that are found in corn. I argue that the modern varieties of corn that are raised for human consumption are crossbred to be sweeter to appeal to American taste, and the result is corn that is less nutrient-rich. I don’t even begin to bring up the topic of genetically modified corn. Considering the wide variety of other starches that I will eat, we call a truce.
“You still ate grits, though,” Kelly smiles.
“I am choosing to be from one of those places where it is polenta!” I laugh.
Kelly pushes back in her seat and exclaims, “I don’t like it, either!” I’m a little surprised at her candidness, but also reassured. She is also a New England transplant, like me. “It’s a texture or a consistency thing,” she concludes.
Maybe I’m not that weird, I think. It’s ok to not like grits!
“You’re still not getting me to eat corn!” I stubbornly assert. She gives me a knowing nod and we both descend into more laughter. At least for now.
I guess maybe I do still need some practice at this whole restaurant-eating thing…